Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Author Laura Lacamára talks about her picture book Floating on Mama’s Song

Floating on Mama’s Song  
by Laura Lacamára
Illustrated by Yuyi Morales

A few years ago, when a fellow artist suggested my images would be ideal for picture books, I signed up for a children’s book illustration class at Otis College of Art and Design. Students were expected to finish a black and white dummy and one full-color illustration by the end of the ten weeks.  Our teacher believed in students illustrating their own stories, so I wrote the first draft of Floating on Mama’s Song simply to have something I could get excited about illustrating.

My initial inspiration for the story was to write about my mother, who had once been an opera singer in Havana.  Imagining illustrating the character’s costumes and the lush tropical setting excited me artistically, but I still didn’t have a plot.  Then, in the middle of the night, it came to me!  What would happen if mama’s singing literally lifted her off the ground?  Who in the story would love it and be supportive?  Who might feel threatened by mama’s floating and want to stop it?

That’s when the story became deeply personal for me.  I know first-hand how crucial creative expression can be to one’s happiness.  My mother dropped her operatic career after she had had my brother and me, and our family fled Cuba. I often wondered how my mother’s life would have been different, if she had sung opera in the USA.

Growing up, it always seemed to be my father’s creative career as a graphic designer and illustrator that took center stage.  Rental pianos, on which my mother could play classical music and accompany her arias, seemed to leave the house as quickly as they arrived.  I can still hear my father’s familiar chant, “We can’t afford it.”  Thus, the early drafts of Floating on Mama’s Song feature the father as the disapproving character who feels threatened by Mama’s singing.

Anyway, getting back to the process of manuscript to publication:  One month after the children’s book illustration class at Otis ended, I joined SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and took my polished manuscript and dummy (with two full-color illustrations) to SCBWI’s “Illustrator’s Day.”  I proudly displayed my creation there for all to see.  No one paid the slightest attention to it, and I recall feeling crushed!  Realizing I was suffering from a bruised ego, I dusted myself off and got back to seeking the next opportunity to present my work.

Fortunately, my brother’s friend knows several literary agents in New York.  This friend, Phillip, liked my story and pictures, so he hooked me up with three agents to submit my work to.  The first two agents passed on it, but the third one, Bill, liked my writing and illustrations, and he was specifically interested in representing Latino manuscripts. Bill phoned one summer afternoon, and casually asked to represent me.  I could barely contain my excitement.  I said, “Yes, of course!” and the submission process began shortly thereafter  --  as soon as I duplicated my dummy twelve (!) times and FedEx’d the package to his Manhattan office.

After six rejections from big publishing houses, the seventh rejection came with an open door.  “There’s something here,” the editor said.  “I’d be willing to take another look, if Laura is willing to make a few changes.  What if Mama were a single parent?  And, what if the ending were different  --  not so simple?”

I knew this was big  --  an opportunity to better my craft, and, of course, to possibly sell my story!  The changes the editor suggested were major, yet I didn’t feel they would compromise my vision.

I set out on a mission to revise and improve my manuscript.

Instead of Papa (who I cut out), I made the grandmother (Abuelita) the disapproving and fearful character.

The ending would be more challenging.  In the original version of Floating on Mama’s Song, Anita gets her Mama to sing again (bringing back happiness to herself and her family) by begging Mama to sing a lullaby to Anita and her little brother, Orlando.  In the revised version, Anita turns the situation around, when she uncovers a family secret that explains why Abuelita is so adamantly against Mama’s singing.

My agent re-submitted my revised manuscript, and, a week later, I got a lovely rejection letter from the editor.

“Much better,” she said, “but I’m afraid the story is still not strong enough to compete in today’s picture book market.”

Next, Bill, my agent, submitted this latest version to Katherine Tegen at HarperCollins.  Two weeks later, Bill called me to congratulate me on my first sale!  There was one hitch.  HarperCollins wanted the manuscript, but not the art.  They would select their own artist.  I was momentarily hurt and disappointed  --  after all, the initial intention behind writing the story was to use it as a means to become a children’s book illustrator!  I quickly recovered, realizing what a wonderful thing was happening!  A major publisher wanted to buy my story!   I couldn’t believe it.

When it came time to choose the illustrator for Floating on Mama’s Song, editor Katherine Tegen included me in the process. We could choose among three or four different artists.  My first choice was Yuyi Morales.  I feel so fortunate that Yuyi agreed to illustrate my book!  It took a few years from signing the contract to publication, because Yuyi had other contracts to fulfill first.  Now that the book is complete and about to be released, and I see what a magnificent job Yuyi did, I can honestly say, it was worth the wait!

Laura Lacámara is a Cuban American author and illustrator. Her mother, an opera singer in Cuba, was the inspiration for Floating on Mama's Song, her first picture book. Laura lives in Venice, California, with her husband, Hal, and their daughter, Annalisa.


Cindy Whitlock said...

This is a lovely story of dreams do come true. Congrats!

Laurie L Young said...

What a beautiful and inspiring story!
Laurie Young

cathyjune said...

Your story is so inspiring, Laura. Thank you for sharing in such an honest and genuine way.

Wm Bearclaw said...

Hola, peoples. I just discovered that this article was shared, in the form of an RSS 'feed' to the following site:

Cool, or what?

-- H <3

Floozy said...

This is so exciting! I loved hearing the story of what you went through and the wonderful outcome. Next, a story with pictures by you! Your art is so beautiful too!